At the end of 2018, Ryan Zinke’s tenure as secretary of the Interior ended. Like many Montanans, I had hoped Zinke’s promise to be a “Theodore Roosevelt” conservationist would lead to pro-wildlife and pro-hunter policies. Instead we got empty promises, investigations into ethics violations, and the reversal of long-standing conservation and wildlife protections.
One of the most successful collaborative conservation efforts in Montana and across the West is the management of sage-grouse. In 2015, after years of work, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), developed plans to protect sage-grouse and sage-grouse habitat. These plans were developed by talking to ranchers, hunters, local communities, the energy industry, and everyone else with a stake in sage-grouse country. The plans gave Montanans a way to work together to allow energy development and other economic development while also protecting traditional land uses, hunting, and the long-term viability of sage-grouse. The plans also benefited mule deer and hundreds of other species that depend on sagebrush habitat. The BLM’s plans on federal land mirrored the state of Montana’s efforts and gave the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team a national policy to keep at the forefront of their mind as they develop, create and approve projects that either impact or protect the bird and its habitat.
Last year, Ryan Zinke directed the BLM to throw out the sage-grouse plans and start over. The reckless tone set by the federal government has emboldened some Montana legislators to call for backing out of sage-grouse conservation at the state level. More than a dozen bills have been proposed that would unravel habitat protections for sage-grouse. Unraveling these protections at the federal and state levels undermines the work that so many people put into protecting multiple use land management and sage-grouse habitat. It also throws open the door to a federal takeover of sage-grouse management under the Endangered Species Act.
In December, wildlife biologists reported to the Sage Grouse Oversight Team that sage-grouse populations began to drop in 2017. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks there were an estimated 75,979 sage-grouse in Montana. A decline in sage-grouse numbers, combined with rollbacks at the federal and state levels is not how we honor our commitment to sage-grouse conservation. It most certainly is not a smart way to move forward in managing a species that has been petitioned for a federal Endangered Species listing eight times.
Through the BLM plans and the work of the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team, an “all hands” approach to sage grouse management has occurred. Industry, landowners, hunters, federal land management agencies, land trusts, birdwatchers, and conservationists have all worked together to balance development with conservation through mitigation, creating incentives for private land stewardship. This ensures the best outcome for all Montanans. This ensures the best outcome for sage grouse conservation.
As we move into 2019 – with a legislative session underway, a new Congress, and eventually a new secretary at the Department of Interior - it is important for Montana to stick to our side of the sage-grouse deal.
Instead of trying to relitigate the past and endanger multiple-use land management, we all need to work together to keep sage-grouse conservation moving forward on the ground, in the Legislature, and in Washington DC.
Tom Puchlerz is a wildlife biologist, retired U.S. Forest Service land manager, and Vice President of the Montana Wildlife Federation Board of Directors.